When architect Guillermo Acuña came across Chilean island Chiloé, he set about making the outcrop habitable and restoring its ever-changing ecosystem.
Chilean architect Guillermo Acuña has long been inspired by the region of Chiloé, an archipelago to the south of Chile made up of fjords, islands, rolling hills and volcanoes, and defined by the sea. An avid sailor and fly fisherman, the region appealed to his personal interests. But over the past 15 years, he has also been developing a body of work on one of the archipelago’s small islands, Isla Lebe. “I didn’t find the island as much as the island found me,” he says, taking us through his careful artificial additions to this very wild place.
Acuña came across the island by accident in 2005, when the weather turned inclement on a sailing trip around the Chiloé region and his main sail broke. In urgent need of a place to lay anchor and make repairs to his boat, Isla Lebe was the closest option. Acuña spent the night there and when the sun rose, he was amazed by the setting. “One of the most beautiful places in the world is this island after a storm,” he says.
After tracking down the island’s owner and buying the land in parcels, Acuña set out to build a series of structures with the aim of creating a retreat where he could fish and sail. It was also important that he could divide his time between Chiloé and Santiago, where his practice, Guillermo Acuña Arquitectos Asociados, is based. He first built a shingled structure that included two upper-level guest suites. On the ground level, he created communal living areas in a room of red-painted timbers that opens up onto outside space. When members of his team now visit Chiloé, this communal area doubles as a design studio and workshop.
He then set about building a house for himself. For this, he designed a 21st-century adaptation of the stilt-supported housing that’s traditional in this area and is typically positioned on the water’s edge. For his version, Acuña used glass to form something of a transparent timber treehouse that blends snugly into a shoreline canopy. And, like many houses in the region, its location directly on the coast allows the drifting tide to majestically sweep back and forward beneath it. At low tide, a narrow spit also connects the island to land, while at high tide Isla Lebe becomes a proper island that is accessible only by boat. “It’s so amazing how the landscape changes from high tide to low tide,” says Acuña.
“It’s so amazing how the landscape of Isla Lebe changes from high tide to low tide”
The architect designated the lower floor for his family’s private bedrooms, calling that area “hermetic and really functional”. Above those, he created a glassy environment for shared spaces – living room, kitchen, and dining room. Peeking out over the tree canopy, this upper level provides 360-degree views of the surrounding land and seascape. Wood finishes throughout the interior – all sourced nearby – add a sense of warmth to the spaces. In keeping with the local building tradition, he painted the exterior a vibrant colour. For that, Acuña, a gardening and botany enthusiast, turned to the colour of Fuchsia magellanica, a flowering plant native to Chile.
Acuña’s project on Isla Lebe is not only architectural. When he first came to the island, the once-lush landscape had become arid and deforested. “Seeing the devastation on this island, I wanted to give back energy and not just make a series of architectural refuges,” he says. Less interested in laying down grass or pursuing farming, he decided to make a forest. “I wanted to try to restore the place back to its original condition.”
To do so he committed to environmental research: “I read, read, read a lot,” he says. Then he embarked on an ambitious reforestation project. Using only species native to the area, he created a plan to plant trees in focused clusters every year, aiming to blanket the island with a healthy forest. Over the past seven years, he has planted more than 9,000 trees. “The reforestation has brought a huge ecosystem of insects and birds, and it has modified the immediate climate,” he says, pointing to the way the forest captures fresh water and how conditions in the warmer months have cooled.
When the budget for this reforestation project started to escalate, Acuña sold a parcel of the island to one of his close friends (and one of his fellow sailors on that fateful first visit to Isla Leba), using the funds from that sale to support more planting. For his friend Roberto Pons, who has become a partner in the operation, he designed a house, making a slightly larger adaptation of the cabin he had designed for himself. Like Acuña’s, it is painted red, perched on stilts and crowned with an upper-level living space clad in glass. To support the complex construction operations in a remote location, as well as reforesting an island, Acuña also designed a series of modest support buildings: a boathouse, a storage shed, and a maintenance garage.
For his latest project, Acuña’s went a little further afield. Two years ago, on a visit to Chiloé, his uncle bought a diesel fishing boat that was nearing the end of its seaworthiness. He hired his nephew to restore it, making this boat the latest entry in Acuña’s Isla Leba oeuvre. The Kon Tiki, as the boat was named, underwent a meticulous restoration. Like the structures he masterminded on the island itself, Acuña designed custom interiors that were finished with local wood.
Always drawn to the environment, Acuña chose the boat’s distinctive deep blue-green colour to reflect the palette of Chiloé’s atmosphere. As the island is so far south, the sun hangs particularly low in the sky. Thick cloud tends to hover overhead and for much of the year they are illuminated from below by the sun’s low light. In such moments the water becomes a shade of deep blue-green – the exact colour that Acuña used to paint the hull of the Kon Tiki.
Earlier this year, Acuña and his family had a barbecue at the guest house on Isla Leba and took the Kon Tiki to sea. “A boat is a very good mechanism to explore the territories of Chiloé,” says Acuña. “And the most amazing way to get to know this place.”